OSHA Proposes Nearly $1 Million in Employer Penalties for Fatal Nitrogen Release
In connection to a Jan. 28, 2021, liquid nitrogen release at a Gainesville, Georgia, poultry processing plant that left six workers dead and at least 12 injured, OSHA has cited plant operator Foundation Food Group Inc. and three of its contractors for a combined 59 violations and a proposed $998,637 in penalties.
During a press briefing held by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) on July 23, Kurt Petermeyer, the OSHA regional administrator based in Atlanta, explained that the liquid nitrogen release occurred after a freezer at the plant malfunctioned. While employees tried to address the malfunction, the freezer began to leak liquid nitrogen, resulting first in the deaths of three maintenance workers. A maintenance lead, a plant superintendent, and a quality control technician then died—two in an attempt to rescue the endangered maintenance workers and one on the way to the hospital. All deaths were the result of asphyxia. A dozen other workers were hospitalized.
OSHA Atlanta’s East Area office initiated an investigation on the day of the release, in collaboration with the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB). In the course of the investigation, OSHA determined that Foundation Food Group and the contractors working at the plant violated multiple agency standards. A press release published just before the DOL briefing stated that Foundation Food Group alone had been cited for 26 of the 59 violations, including six willful violations for exposing workers to thermal injuries and suffocation hazards; failing to develop, document, and use lockout procedures; not informing workers that liquid nitrogen—an asphyxiate—was used in the freezer; failing to train workers on the detection of nitrogen; failing to inform workers of the hazards of liquid nitrogen; and not training workers on the emergency procedures they could have taken to protect themselves. Foundation Food Group has also been cited to pay $595,474 in penalties.
The investigation also determined that Foundation Food Group “displayed indifference to OSHA regulations when their position of safety manager was left unfilled for more than one and a half years,” Petermeyer said. “Upper management made no effort to ensure that the duties typically held by the safety manager were conducted by another person at the company in the interim period while the position of safety manager was vacant.”
OSHA’s press release provides more information on Foundation Food Group’s additional violations and those of the three other contracting companies with employees at the plant: Messer LLC, which delivered nitrogen to the plant; Packers Sanitation Services Inc. Ltd., which provided cleaning and sanitation services; and FS Group Inc., which provided equipment and mechanical servicing. Citations for these companies include those for obstructed egress routes, failure to implement a written permit program for confined spaces, failure to coordinate with the host employer and other contractors, and additional failures to train workers on the hazards of liquid nitrogen.
Following the briefing, DOL clarified that Packers Sanitation Services and FS Group were not directly involved in the Jan. 28 nitrogen release, though they were cited for violating multiple OSHA safety standards. DOL staff also mentioned the existence of additional ongoing investigations at Foundation Food Group’s poultry processing plants and discussed OSHA’s difficulties with interviewing workers during the investigation, due to fear of coercion and retaliation from their employer, including the threat of deportation for workers who were undocumented immigrants.